Pearl has its UK première at the Glasgow Film Festival 2023
The opening of writer/director Ti West’s previous feature X (2022) showed the corpse-strewn tableau of an old, battered farm, first in what appeared to be 1.375:1 aspect ratio, and then, as the camera passed through the barn’s square doorway which had been occluding the image, in widescreen. This game of aspects was a way for West to merge different timeframes – all at once a much earlier period, in fact the heyday of two major characters, when Academy ratio spelt cinematic glamour, and the Seventies in which the film was actually set, when the same ratio was used only for cheap 16mm pornos (and the very cheapest end of horror). X followed the odd, increasingly horrific encounters between a small film cast and crew who rented an outbuilding on the farm to shoot a sex flick, and the elderly couple who owned the property. Mia Goth appeared in dual rôles as young porn star Maxine Minx, and the much older, if no less libidinous Pearl.
West’s latest feature Pearl is a prequel to X, showing the emergence of a much younger Pearl (Goth again, who this time also co-wrote) back in 1918, before Academy ratio even existed, and before she had established her pattern of strange behaviours with her loving but long-suffering husband Howard (here played by Alistair Sewell). Pearl was shot back to back with X, and the two films reflect one another across time, sharing a key location, a lead actress (despite being set some half a century apart), and the kind of tight thematic cohesion rarely found in a more staggered sequel. Even the opening shot is a mirror, as the camera once more tracks from behind the barn’s doorway out to the farm itself – only this time there is a movement from the monochromatic shadows of the barn’s interior to the bright sunlit exterior and the freshly painted, less faded-looking farmhouse – an open imitation of Dorothy Gale’s transition from her black-and-white home to the technicolor world of Oz. Indeed, there are several evocations of Victor Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz (1939), setting the tone for the dynamic between wild fantasy and harsher reality that will come to define Pearl – although having encountered her own scarecrow while still high on her father’s morphine, Pearl will dry-hump it in the cornfield in a way that Dorothy never would have. Tyler Bates and Tim Williams’ swooning orchestral score may suggest a classic melodrama of Hollywood’s Golden Age, but there is something altogether more sinister about Pearl, as much a misfit in that genre as in her own rural community.
“I’m special,” Pearl will declare to the farm animals that are her friends and confidantes, as though this were a Disney movie. Pearl is wishing upon a star to become a dancer on the big screen, like the ones she watches in Palace Follies when she sneaks into the nearby town’s Embassy Theater – even if a more likely model for her is the vampish Theda Bara, who is on the poster for another film showing at the Embassy, and who has lent her forename to Pearl’s ‘pet’ alligator. This is Pearl’s dream – her American dream – of upward mobility, of rising above her humble origins, of pursuing her ambitions and of becoming famous. Pearl imagines that her specialness lies in her dancing talents, which have only to be discovered to elevate her to the stratosphere of celebrity far from life on the farm. Yet for her mother Ruth (Tandi Wright), a severe, god-fearing German national who has seen her own dreams of happiness curtailed by the paralysing infirmity of her now wheelchair-bound husband (Matthew Sunderland), Pearl is special in a different way. For Ruth has witnessed her daughter’s propensity for cruel acts and impulsive outbursts, and knows that Pearl is ‘not well’ and cannot hide her ‘malevolence’ from others forever. Pearl may fear her mother’s stern, disapproving eye, but Ruth is even more frightened of her daughter.
Like all prequels, Pearl is lent gravity by the viewer’s knowledge of the future to come. Pearl may fantasise about leaving ‘Powder Kegs Farms’ behind her forever and becoming a dancer, but we know that her dreams are nothing more than that, and that she will still be stuck on that property with her Howard – currently not back from fighting in the Great War, but inevitably destined to return – some fifty years later when Maxine first rolls up. While Pearl hopes to be a chorus girl, she is also not averse, if it will win her fame and fortune, to the idea of starring in skin flicks – like the one that the local ‘Bohemian’ projectionist Johnny (David Corenswet) shows her (“People pay an arm and a leg to see this,” he tells Pearl, his words layered with dramatic irony, “Pictures like this are going to revolutionise the industry”). Of course, Maxine will eventually be leading the pornstar life that Pearl could only imagine, and is exactly who, all those years ago, Pearl wanted – and failed – to be. As if to drive the point home, when Pearl auditions in the local church for a state dance troupe, she takes up her position before a carefully marked X on the stage, only to be told that she lacks the ‘X factor’. Yet while it will be Maxine who eventually stars in X, even there Pearl is her ghost, her shadow and her alter ego – a reminder of different times, and of the old age that inevitably lies in store for Maxine too. Meanwhile the Great Influenza epidemic of 1918 which has everyone here wearing masks when breaking their isolation, forges an uncanny link between the historic era of this film and our own age of pandemic.
In Pearl, our aspirant anti-heroine is first seen got up in her mother’s old pink dress and standing before a mirror, imagining that she is a star. In fact this mirror is a triptych, dividing Pearl into a trinity of images – the three faces of Pearl, as it were. It might be supposed that this reflects West’s intention to make a trilogy of films – X, Pearl and the forthcoming MaXXXine – all starring Goth. In fact Goth has already been quietly doing the good work in films like Stephen Fingleton’s The Survivalist (2015), Gore Verbinski’s A Cure For Wellness (2016), Sergio G. Sánchez’s The Secret of Marrowbone (2017) and Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria (2018), while also showing a commitment to unusual and eclectic projects – but with her starring rôles in West’s features, as well as in Brandon Cronenberg’s Infinity Pool (2023), Goth’s time has finally come to shine in the spotlight. She is now the face of quality oddball horror – and here that face is grinning like a maniac’s, showing the tense strain, indeed the psychopathy, that underlies corn-fed, cracker-barrel Americana. For it is both Pearl’s tragedy and her triumph that there is no place like home, and nowhere else for her to go.
strap: Ti West’s horror prequel sours the conventions of Golden Age melodrama, while unhinging the American dream with harsh reality
© Anton Bitel